Manchin visits troops in Iraq – Four governors in secret trek to war zone

Gov. Joe Manchin made a surprise visit to National Guard troops serving in Kuwait and Iraq this weekend, and he says the soldiers’ morale is unshaken.

“Their spirits are very high,² Manchin said Saturday in a teleconference from Baghdad with reporters. “They know they’re doing a job that must be done.”

The U.S. State and Defense departments invited Manchin on the trip, along with three other governors: Jeb Bush of Florida, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Iowa’s Tom Vilsack. The trip is one in a series financed by the Pentagon with the aim of connecting governors with their state’s servicemen and servicewomen.

The invitation came several weeks ago, but the Pentagon asked Manchin not to disclose the trip plans, said his spokeswoman, Lara Ramsburg.

The four governors, all traveling in secrecy without their staff or spouses, left Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Thursday following briefings in Washington with administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“We had a very frank discussion about why the American people don’t seem to be supporting the war,” Manchin said. “I’m sure they felt that it [the governors’ trip] couldn’t hurt.”

After their plane refueled in Shannon, Ireland, the governors landed in Kuwait on Friday, stopping first at a base whose name the Pentagon will not disclose. Then they traveled to Camp Arifjan, an Army base south of Kuwait City, touring the camp and visiting a hospital, then surveying an “up armor” facility, where steel plates and bulletproof glass are installed in military hardware.

From there, they traveled north to Camp Virginia, another Army base that functions as a busy way station for soldiers entering and exiting Iraq. They had dinner with troops there, then boarded a C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft to Baghdad’s main airport. Then they flew by helicopter into the “Green Zone,” the heavily fortified district of central Baghdad where U.S. occupation authorities live and work.

After breakfast and lunch with troops, Manchin and the other governors met with Army Gen. George Casey Jr., the top military commander in Iraq. Manchin then flew by UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter to the sprawling Balad Airbase, about 40 miles north of Baghdad.

At Balad, Manchin presented Meritorious Service Awards to two West Virginia soldiers, whose names had not been released by press time, and met with soldiers training Iraqis for police and secret service duty. Manchin also renewed ties with a Huntington-based Guard unit that he had seen off last September.

Whenever he met West Virginia personnel, Manchin had them fill out forms with their family’s contact information. Once home, he said, he will look up the families and let them know they spoke.

Manchin spoke with some of the Iraqi trainees, too. “Most of all, they were concerned that we [U.S. forces] would be leaving,” Manchin said.

Also at the airbase, Manchin inspected Predator drone aircraft and inscribed two messages on the Hellfire missiles they carry. One message read: “For West Virginia’s brave and fallen.” The other had a harsher tone, meant for the bomb’s targets: “Sending you to hell from Almost Heaven.”

“People are trying to do tremendous harm to our people,” Manchin said. “I wanted to send them a little message.”

Saturday evening, Manchin was at Camp Victory, on the grounds of Baghdad International Airport, where he had dinner with troops. The rest of the trip’s itinerary, including its duration, is secret.

The West Virginia National Guard has deployed nearly 5,000 soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan. There are 389 troops from the state in Iraq right now.

Manchin’s delegation was the seventh group of governors to travel to Iraq, bringing to 26 the number of who have visited troops there.

In all his interactions, Manchin said, he saw no signs that the West Virginia contingent was wavering.

“They still believe very strongly that, if we hadn’t come to the Middle East, that war would have come to the U.S.,” Manchin said. “They know they’ve got a tough job: they’re trying to build a nation, build an economy.”

Despite being weighed down in body armor and other equipment amid 108-degree heat, the soldiers Manchin came across never grumbled, he said.

“I have newfound respect for the commitment and dedication of the men and women of America,” Manchin said. “You never know where that sniper may be or when that zealot may walk in. You never know, but they are prepared.”

Manchin said he saw the trip as a chance to convey how thankful the state is. “I wanted them to know how much we support them,” he said, “and I thought Easter was an appropriate time, when so many of them are giving up their holidays.”